One Year Alcohol-free, Pandemic Style
Yesterday I passed a milestone I’m proud of: one year alcohol-free. I hesitate to say I celebrated the anniversary, because I struggle still to define what it means for me. Giving up alcohol was in itself not difficult. I wasn’t an alcoholic, so I didn’t go through withdrawal, cravings nor any of the other physical pain associated with quitting a substance. Quitting drinking, however, caused a dominos effect of social changes to which I’m still adapting.
For abstainers like me who exist in this grey area of being able to drink but choosing not to, there is no support system. I’m not a member of a recovery program, because I don’t feel like I belong there, even though I believe in the value of recovery work and have pursued what I could on my own. Certainly I can point to plenty of occasions where I failed to be my best self under the influence of alcohol, but there’s a big difference between quitting drinking because your life depends on it and quitting drinking because you believe you’ll have a better life without it. I didn’t have to give up alcohol, but I knew that it was in no way helping me be who I wanted to be and accomplish what I wanted to accomplish. Therefore, I made the conscious choice to remove it from my life.
So yay, hooray, I’m officially in my second year now of not drinking, but who cares? That’s the voice in my head dogging me, like I don’t have a right to congratulate myself on the accomplishment. Like somehow everything I’ve gone through, both good and bad, as a result of this choice didn’t actually happen. Despite the rewards, it has not been easy. Going it on my own, without a cadre of support group peers with whom to navigate this change through common language (whether Twelve Step or otherwise) has further reinforced all the ways in which I’ve lived my life outside of conventional institutions, and it has been equally empowering and alienating.
I will no doubt continue to learn what this choice means for me, and I look forward to that. For now though, the best I can do is share a few of the lessons that have been of most value for me recently, tools that help me navigate the stress of living alone in the global epicenter of a terrifying pandemic and thoughts that guide me through the uncertainty of ever shifting information. Though I may not actively participate in a Twelve Step program, I have been exposed to quite a bit of it, and many of these teachings have made their way in to my philosophy and guided me in to a new personal era as humanity too enters a new epoch.
With the future seemingly less predictable every day, it is an easy jump to remember the mantra, “One day at a time.” In April, as the death toll in New York reached nearly 1000 people/day and the scream of ambulance sirens was so frequent that the sound was stuck in my head like a bad song, my anxiety reached levels I had never before experienced. I began to think every day, What if today is my last good day? What if tomorrow I end up in an ICU and that’s the end of everything? What do I want to spend my last day doing? All I could do was get through one day at a time. This went on for weeks, until one day it occurred to me that my anxiety was a symptom of disconnect from a higher power.
I am not known for being anything but agnostic, but I have spent much of the last year grappling with this concept of a higher power. To move forward in any kind of recovery work requires first admitting you are powerless over whatever it is that has a grip on you. Second, one must acknowledge that, “A power greater than you could restore you to sanity.” Lots of people get stuck there. It is a mystifying concept to integrate later in life, especially if you did not grow up with any spiritual practice. Twelve Step language is deliberate in not naming this higher power, and that made it just accessible enough for me to start working my brain around it. I’m not fully there yet, but I did experience a noticeable relief of anxiety when I acknowledged I wasn’t connected to a power greater than me; a restoration of sanity, if you will.
Feeling even an inkling of a connection to an infinite formless loving universal source of wisdom and power made it possible for me to embrace the concept of, “Life on life’s terms.” There’s nothing like a global pandemic to remind you that you are not in charge of any kind of big picture. Sure, I can decide what I do each day and how I do it, but with every closure and cancelation this spring it became more and more evident that I have no choice but to live according to the reality that is, not that which I wish it to be. As I face a year, possibly two, possibly more, of all my work events being canceled, and the overnight evaporation of my Airbnb income in Brooklyn, my survival is dependent more than ever on adapting to circumstances rather than kicking rocks in frustration over my inability to change them. Gotta work with the cards I’ve been dealt. This is life now, whether I like it or not, and it’s up to me what I make of it.
Aside from being grateful that I had learned this belief system before the pandemic began, I am also so grateful to be living without alcohol through what is easily the most upsetting period of life most of us have experienced. With the city shut down and the bars and restaurants closed except for take-out, it is easy to forget that drinking is still so much a part of mainstream culture, but whenever I go out, I see a line outside the liquor store on my corner, and I am encouraged by my choice to abstain. I am grateful I am not drinking to cope with quarantine for the same reasons I was grateful I wasn’t drinking before, because alcohol wouldn’t help me be who I want to be, do what I want to do, create what I want to create.
*** Note: If you’re questioning your relationship with alcohol and need someone to talk to, click here to connect.